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Swinging on a Star (10/22/1995 - 01/13/1996)


 

New York Daily News: "Instead of 'Shining,' a Dull 'Star'"

Of the dozens of songs with lyrics by Johnny Burke that make up "Swinging on a Star" all the ones you really want to hear are sung in the last 15 minutes. They are standards like "Misty," "Here's That Rainy Day," "Moonlight Becomes You" and, of course, the title song.

These ballads are sung in a setting that evokes, say, Rainbow & Stars, which is where this revue belongs in the first place. There, for less money, you could have a drink, and the show would have lasted an hour. Two and a half hours of largely mediocre songs is absurd.

Before we reach the starlit lounge, the songs are sung in settings like a '40s radio studio and a World War II USO stage. The humor is strained, though Michael McGrath and Kathy Fitzgerald plunge into it with admirable fearlessness.

Dorothy Lamour is billed as a consultant on a sequence of songs from the "Road" pictures, but most of these songs, outside their original context, fall flat.

Eugene Fleming, a dazzling tap dancer, sings "Misty" beautifully. Terry Burrell does a stylish "But, Beautiful." Alvaleta Guess brings the house down with "Sunday, Monday or Always," and Lewis Cleale does well with "Pennies From Heaven." Denise Faye dances impressively. They all bring high spirits and solid talent to the evening.

A small onstage combo provides constant joy, but mostly the show is a bore. These are not theater songs, which fill the stage with character or ideas.

They'd be better served with candlelight and the occasional tinkle of cocktail glasses.


New York Daily News
10/23/1995

New York Post: "'Star' grants wish"

Johnny Burke? Johnny who? Well, I've heard of him - it's my job - but I must admit he's scarcely a household moniker in each and every neighborhood.

The name sounds like a linebacker - don't ask me why - but in fact Johnny Burke is a lyricist. He wrote the words for such songs as "Swinging on a Star," and it just happens, that is the name of an energetically bright little musical, celebrating his silver, gold and platinum words, which opened last night at the Music Box.

Now lyricists are not quite the forgotten men of the pop music world - whether it's Broadway, Hollywood or even Tin Pan Alley - but after those truly ignored men, the book writers, they come pretty close. Musicals, and the music they enshrine, tend to honor composers, composers, composers, all the way.

Apart from the lyricists who are their own composers (the Cole Porters and Stephen Sondheims of that world), or lyricists notably combines with their pet composers, Hart or Hammerstein with Rodgers, Lerner with Loewe, Ira with George, etc., few lyricists have made much of a name for themselves.

One hand, with two fingers and a thumb left over, could handle them: Sammy Cahn and Johnny Mercer. But our present hero, Johnny Burke, deserves to be added to the list.

Burke - who died in 1964 - always longed for a Broadway hit. The two Broadway shows he wrote with his most frequent composer/collaborator, Johnny Van Heusen, clocked up just 22 performances between them. And "Donnybrook!" for which Burke himself composed the music, hardly did any better.

Fast-forward to the present, where, as one of the producers, his widow, Mary Burke Kramer, is determined to give Burke's Broadway dream one last throw of the dice. And I think it might just be a winner.

"Swinging on a Star," which was developed at the George Street Playhouse and the Goodspeed Opera House, has been devised by Michael Leeds, who has both written and directed the show, and done a nifty job of packaging.

These anthology musicals - usually devoted a composer - tend to be a briskly, sometimes brusquely, staged revue, with the rendition, some more rending than others, of one number after another.

Leeds has nimbly eschewed this approach, and developed seven separate thematic sketches, neatly slotting the songs into these, showing infinitely more ingenuity than is customary to such proceedings.

Ironically, the work for which Burke might be best recalled, his collaboration with Van Heusen on the Crosby/Hope/Lamour "Road" movies, is the episode which, despite the adroit use of film clips, comes off worse, and could with advantage be cut.

James Youmans' scenery shows effortless versatility and interest, Judy Dearing's costumes (she's helped out by Oscar de la Renta in the finale) are perfect, as is Richard Nelson's consistently helpful lighting.

Beyond such production values comes the absolutely splendid young cast - I was going to say I have a special word for Kathy Fitzgerald, Eugene Fleming, Alvaleta Guess and Michael McGrath (a Nathan Lane in the making), but that's unfair, because I really have an equally special word for Terry Burrell, Lewis Cleale and Denise Faye, so all can take a totally deserved corporate bow.

The music - from torch to novelty - sounds vintage showbiz, mostly by Van Heusen and Arthur ("Pennies From Heaven") Johnston, with the notable addition of Errol Garner's "Misty."

And yes, Burke really was a wonderfully gifted lyricist, with a feel for simplicity and the way words can dance across a crowded bar. Grab the chance to swing on this star - you'll have a ball.


New York Post
10/23/1995

New York Times: "Tribute to a Jazz-Age Lyricist"

Early in "Swinging on a Star," the immensely likable new revue at the Music Box Theater, the big-bodied, big-voiced singer Alvaleta Guess appears to be flagging. She clearly needs some sort of tonic and, obviously a woman to let no urge go unheeded, she calls on someone she describes as "the greatest benefactor of mankind."

His name is Doctor Rhythm, and as embodied by a high-kicking, loose-jointed performer named Eugene Fleming, he does indeed have what it takes to raise Ms. Guess's, and the audience's, pulse. Legs splitting like scissors, feet tapping like a string of firecrackers, Mr. Fleming dances in a way that is pure show-off show biz. Nothing more, really, but decidedly nothing less.

Doctor Rhythm," like every number in this show, has lyrics by Johnny Burke, who died in 1964 (the music is by James Monaco). Written in the lyricist's youth in the 1920's, it has little in common with the songs that made the subject of this evening famous: such gossamer-spun pop ballads as "Pennies From Heaven" (with Arthur Johnston), "Moonlight Becomes You" (with Jimmy Van Heusen) and "Misty" (with Erroll Garner), and the blithe, wisecracking numbers created with Van Heusen for the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope "Road" movies.

But the piece does establish the emotional core of the show, which recalls a time when popular music was often a hopeful pick-me-up, a means, as Burke wrote, of putting "the worn-out and the weary" back on their feet. There is obviously still a hunger for this kind of fare among contemporary audiences, or there wouldn't be so many revivals from the bright heyday of the American musical.

The signal accomplishment of this show's director and writer, Michael Leeds, and its choreographer, Kathleen Marshall, is its ability to present such material without the arched eyebrow, an acknowledgment of innocence lost, that has pervaded Broadway since the nostalgia boom was initiated with shows like "No, No, Nanette" and "Irene" more than two decades ago.

Nurtured through previous incarnations at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey and the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, "Swinging on a Star" always sounded like a feeble idea: yet another jukebox musical (hasn't "Smokey Joe's Cafe" already cornered that market?), this time built around the works of a lyricist whose name is unknown to most people under 50.

But this show finally is not just a memorial to Burke. (At times, in fact, the lyrics are unforgivably drowned out by the agile, six-piece band.) Nor is it a cloying wallow in nostalgia or a conceptual tracing of pop-music history. Mr. Leeds, Ms. Marshall and the musical director Barry Levitt have shrewdly concentrated on giving each number an invigorating, present-tense vitality.

Even more important, the show (unlike, say, the silkily homogenized "Smokey Joe's Cafe") lets each of its seven ensemble members emerge as a fully defined personality with a brazen, infectious delight in doing what he or she does best. In this sense, "Star" echoes the revues celebrating fresh, individual talent that were a staple of Broadway from the 1920's on into the 1950's.

The talents here include the formidable Ms. Guess, who can go from raunchy belting to a startlingly heartbroken interpretation of "It Could Happen to You," and the acrobatic Mr. Fleming.

There are also Lewis Cleale, the honey-voiced tenor (the charmer in the recent concert version of "Call Me Madam") who gives "Star" its most celestial musical moments; Michael McGrath, a puckish, disarmingly versatile comic who recalls the young Robert Morse, and Kathy Fitzgerald, who interjects a delightful, burlesque tincture of old-style Hollywood.

Terry Burrell, a lithe beauty, gives a subtle shimmer to "Imagination," and Denise Faye troops through as a showgirl for all seasons.

Although "Star" is essentially the stuff of supper clubs, Mr. Leeds and his set designer, James Youmans, have justified its presence on a Broadway stage. (The vintage sense of intimacy of the Music Box, built in 1921, helps.) Songs are presented chronologically in a series of vignettes with brisk, creaky, jokey dialogue, set with a deft use of backdrops and projections in everything from a jazz-era speak-easy to a Pacific island stop on a U.S.O tour.

Ms. Marshall, a choreographer to watch, brings her own sure, revitalizing hand to period dance styles. (Only a wistful dream ballet seems tired.) And "Star" even gets away with parodying the self-parody of the "Road" pictures, with Mr. Cleale providing a witty take on Bing Crosby's song stylings. (The sequence also features the peerless Burke lyric "Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco-bound.")

The show is too long by half an hour. And those irritating mini-microphones, crawling out from hairlines like sinister weevils, can make the performers sound as if they're singing into empty coffee cans.

Despite its subject, and an odd second-act tribute to Burke with recorded testimonials from Johnny Mathis, Lena Horne and Doris Day, the lyrics do sometimes get lost. At the show's end, a teen-ager in the audience said triumphantly to a friend, "I figured out what this was supposed to be about: it's a tribute to this guy."

Oh, well. You may not always know exactly why you're watching "Swinging on a Star," but for the most part, it feels awfully good.


New York Times
10/23/1995

Variety: "Swinging on a Star: the Johnny Burke Musical"

A solid ensemble of singers puts over this mild revue of Johnny Burke songs, but it probably won't make Burke any better known than the lyricist of "Misty" and "What's New" already is now, which is primarily among the cabaret cognoscenti.

Devised by Michael Leeds, "Swinging on a Star" is a compilation musical in the fashion of "Ain't Misbehavin',""Five Guys Named Moe" and the current "Smokey Joe's Cafe." It's blander than all of those shows, but then, so are most of the songs represented here.

"Swinging on a Star" tries relentlessly to please -- there's lots of forced audience participation, particularly in the first act -- but it's notably short on emotional wallop. The singers and arrangements are mostly tepid, the material devised to connect the songs very creaky indeed. The only standout is the first-rate onstage band, led by Barry Levitt, with particularly strong contributions from Gary Guzio on trumpet and Bill Easley on sax.

Still, it's a decent production, inoffensive at best, and it should have a fair to middling run. It looks great at the Music Box and will certainly draw the tourist crowd at the TKTS booth, at least through the holiday season.


Variety
11/12/1995

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